Battling the Bovines in the Spirit of Llynfi Woodland

We had walked across the South Wales valleys from Caerphilly to Pontypridd to Ton Pentre to the top of the Bwlch Mountain. There we had traced an ancient Celtic walking trail over the mountains as it headed West. Now, after a bit of hit and miss navigation on my part, Jeff, Andy and myself had reached the old coal town of Maesteg and an homage to the ghosts of the industry that shaped modern South Wales.

The Spirit of Llynfi Woodland sat just above Maesteg on the site of the old Coegnant Colliery and Maesteg Washery that had closed down in the 1980s. The land was elevated but not really a hill – in Welsh it was called Twmpath Mawr (the big hump). It had been established five years before as part of a 10-year local regeneration project to reintroduce local people to the wealth of green space close by them, to promote biodiversity and to alleviate the likelihood of flooding. By installing a large new woodland space (it encompassed some 75 hectares) the Welsh government also hoped to promote the health benefits of embracing nature and woodlands – and so improve both the physical and mental health of a community where chronic illness and depression is high.

Over 60,000 trees already had been planted by local people including a mixture of broadleaves, fruit and ornamental trees and new walking and cycle paths had been constructed to encourage local people to visit. The project was being funded through a Welsh government grant and also, partly, by the Ford Motor Company as many of the workers at its nearby Bridgend plant lived in the area.

“That’s very corporate citizen of them,” said Andy as we walked through the woodland towards its centrepoint – the Keeper of the Colliery statue of a miner carved out of oak. “But who is sponsoring the cows?”

In front of us, surrounding the bemused looking wooden miner, was a herd of black cows. Some were munching on the grass around where the miner’s feet might have been had he been given any. Others were picking at the plants and bushes lining the paths that spread out through the woodland in straight lines to all points of the compass.

The animals stopped eating and stared at us as we approached – it was like being in a bovine version of the pub scene in An American Werewolf in London.

“Um, I don’t think those are cows,” said Jeff. “Those are young Welsh black bullocks and I’m not sure we want to walk through them.”

We all agreed. “They weren’t kidding when they said this park was all about reconnecting with nature,” said Andy as we rapidly backtracked away from the animals.

So we sought a new route through the woodland, backtracking until we reached a cycle path that ran on its southern perimeter just above Maesteg high school. There we met a man walking in our direction with his dog running a little ahead of him. We gave him a heads up about the bulls he was about to encounter.

“Oh bloody hell, not them again,” he said. “They’re becoming a right menace.”

Return to My Trees Podcast – Walking with Daniel Raven-Ellison from Slow Ways

Daniel Raven-Ellison – founder of Slow Ways

In late September I took a train down to Exeter to record the latest in my walk and talk podcast series. I was meeting Daniel, Raven-Ellison, the highly accomplished and engaging “guerrilla geographer” and founder of the Slow Ways movement, which is capturing the imagination of the British public in the age of lockdown.

The goal of Slow Ways is to build network of walking routes that connect all of Great Britain’s towns and cities. So far over 7,000 walking routes have been mapped. Now the challenge is to walk, review and verify them all – checking over 100,000km of Slow Ways routes!

Dan and I walked a Slow Ways route up the River Exe from Topsham to Exeter and, along the way, we chatted about nature, walking for wellbeing, the future of cities and the importance of trees.

Come join us on our walk and take a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

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Wrapped up in books – The system change inspiration for restoring balance with nature

The first two parts of The Liminal Forest walking project are very much concerned with how deforestation and industrialisation broke our connection to trees and nature and how we’ve sought to rebuild and restore that connection over the centuries through art, culture, travel, walking and activism.

The final part of the walking journey, which takes place through Snowdonia National Park and along the Dee river valley towards Offa’s Dyke and the English border, is all about our current systems and how they must change if we really stand a chance of restoring balance and making peace with nature.

A number of important books continue to shape and inspire my thinking and writing.

Jane Davidson’s FutureGen – Lessons from a Small Country – was a crucial in understanding the philosophy and policy decisions that led to Wales creating its landmark Future Generations Act.

David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth offered both mindboggling detail and also important perspective of the scale of the climate catastrophe humanity faces.

James Thornton and Martin Goodman’s Client Earth opened my eyes to the role our legal systems must play in reshaping our relationship with nature.

Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics was a breath of fresh air when considering how our economic, financial and political systems need to radically evolve (immediately) to meet the challenges – and how it is possible for them to do so now.

Roman Krznaric’s The Good Ancestor showed me how we all must take a leadership role in making sure the legacy we leave for our children and their children is one we would want for ourselves.

Janine Benyus’ Biomimicry, meanwhile, demonstrated the art of the possible when we learn from, and embrace the teachings of nature in order to build better and create truly sustainable infrastructure and systems.

Finally, a special mention not for a book but for a podcast. Through the past 12 months or so Jon Richardson and the Futurenauts’ How to Survive the Future amused, scared, intrigued, informed and inspired me.

All the books that I’ve drawn on in creating The Liminal Forest are in the reading list on the site. I’ll keep adding more as I come across them and digest their wisdom.

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Among the spirits of Newport’s industrial past – A walk along the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal

The 14 Locks Walk

Searching for a trail next to Newport’s noisy, congested Brynglas road tunnel might not be everyone’s idea of a good nature walk but I had a good reason to be here.

My friend Andy and I were continuing our path from Caerleon. We’d climbed through the terraced hilly streets of the Crindau neighbourhood and now we’d stumbled on what felt like one of those liminal entrances to the Annwn – the fabled otherworld or underworld of Welsh mythology. In traditional folklore these entrances often were found by lakes or rivers and protected by the Tylwyth Teg – the fairies. Our entry point was a gap in the concrete wall next to the main road into Newport. The only guardians were the morning drinkers outside the pub across the street who stared at us with a mix of astonishment and a hint of menace. Asking them about their connection to the fair folk was out of the question.

We disappeared through the gap and our world was transformed. The cacophony of heavy traffic was muted and all was tranquil. We were at an old transportation crossroads – where the Pontnewynydd and Crumlin arms of the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal came together and connected to Newport docks. Back in the early 19th century canal barges carried iron and coal – part of the great logistical machine that exported Welsh raw materials all around the world. This nexus of the canal industry would have been noisy, filthy and full of early urban life. Today, only the ghosts of Newport’s industrial might remain.

Above us was Allt-yr-yn (Slope of the Ash Tree) Nature Reserve – a 32 acre expanse of mixed deciduous woodland. It provides a natural buffer of biodiversity between the nearby M4 motorway and the residential neighbourhood of the same name that sits on the hill above. Alongside the eponymous ash trees the nature reserve is home to birch, cherry and oak as well as hazel and hawthorn growing beneath the canopies.

Allt-yr-yn is exactly the type of woodland that could be part of an interlinked National Forest for Wales. It’s within easy reach of most of Newport offering a connection to nature and an escape from some of the city’s grittier features.

We were tempted to take a detour and explore the woodland in more depth but today we had another walking adventure to pursue – following the 14 Locks trail northwest towards Rogerstone and then on to Bassaleg.

The trail was named in honour of the Cefn Flight – an intricate engineering feat employed by the canal builders that allowed barges to navigate a particularly tricky part of the descent between Crumlin and Crindau, dropping 50 meters in just 700 meters. The Cefn Flight remains the steepest canal descent in the whole of the United Kingdom.

The mastermind behind the Cefn Flight was a young engineer from the English Midlands called Thomas Dadford Jr. He had followed in his father’s footsteps – playing leading roles in constructing the Glamorganshire canal and the Stourbridge canal in England. Dadford Jr. was said to be a prodigious worker – his time occupied by multiple projects. However, he was far less successful when it came to building tunnels. His Southnet Tunnel on the Leominster Canal collapsed in 1795 and another, the Ashford tunnel on the Brecon and Abergavenny Canal collapsed during construction. His reputation never recovered.

So it seemed a cruel irony that to reach Dadford Jr.’s masterwork we had walk through a tunnel under the M4 – the cars roaring over our head just a few feet away. Once out of the tunnel, the engineering marvel was clear to see. The 14 locks were staggered at points high above us as we climbed the hill. It was incredible to even contemplate how Dadford Jr. went about such a feat of engineering. 

It’s been many, many years since the locks were in active use and nowadays their thick square stone pillars are covered in moss and other foliage as nature does what it does best – reclaiming what humans have neglected and creating new a habitat for other creatures. Who knows, maybe even a home for the Tylwyth Teg?